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CAM: Some random ramblings

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Ulf Buck, Rumpologist. Borrowed from


Today, after a few months of writing articles and changing diapers, I finally got a good idea for a blog post. Because of unfortunate circumstances, I have been substitute lecturer at a couple of seminars in the course New Religious Movements, a course focusing on explicit and implicit manifestations of religiosity in the contemporary West. Wednesday’s lecture was about the cultic milieu, a popular topic in this blog, focusing on modeling issues or how to conceptualize implicit religion. 

After such a solid dose of social theory, I thought it would be wise to attempt something a little more hands-on. As the regular lecturer had selected Complementary and Alternative Medicine, or CAM for short, as the subject matter, something I have only superficial knowledge about, I reached into the old high school teacher bag-of-tricks and found two good examples of alternative practitioners here in Trondheim, TOMAS and Anita, as the basis of class discussion. On the “home” and “biography” pages, I asked them to find discursive or rhetorical markers pointing towards religious and scientific legitimacy. This turned out to be quite the lucky punch. 

In the case of Trondheim Oriental Medicine and Acupuncture Centre (TOMAS), run by Catherine Kim-Nestaas, only the frequent claims of oriental heritage, especially Japanese and Chinese techniques, have a flavor of the alternative (not to mention religion). Otherwise, it is devoid of the usual markers of “spirituality”, such as energy, vibrations or healing. The rhetoric is markedly scientific, although the techniques are definitely what we would call alternative – Fire Cupping, Moxabustion and Ear Seeds, for example – and they are described as “complementary” to western medicine. Legitimacy and authority is mainly obtained through the practitioner’s degrees (BSc in Biomedical Engineering, Boston U, MSc in Oriental Medicine, Berkeley and other certifications), her “many years of employment in the pharmaceutical industry” and the professional tone of the website itself. Held in the third person and presented as a “centre”, the site distances itself from more personal and hence more “spiritual” ventures, even though it is owned and driven by one person. 

In contrast, Anita’s Alternativ, run by Anita Holm, strikes the visitor as much more “religious” (at least in the contemporary, “spiritual” sense): She offers “self-help”, “holistic treatment” (not “complementary” as in TOMAS’ case, although the two concepts seem to converge), Tarot readings and so on. However, apart from Tarot, the range of techniques seems to be parallel to TOMAS’, although the tone is different. In addition, Anita is using a more psychological and less orientalizing rhetoric to legitimize her treatments. When she is “listening”, she is actually “taking in images/emotions which shows the cause of your ailments”. As with Kim-Nestaas, Anita is actively promoting her education and certifications, but in her case, the legitimacy is less scientific apart from basic training in medicine and certification as a care worker. Finally, the website itself seems more personal and less professional, prompting one student to call it “a bit naive” – authentic or honest might say the same. Interestingly, it is in the first person throughout, thus being closer to Anita as a private, holistic entrepreneur. 

As the goal of the seminar was to problematize given concepts of “religion” and reflect on alternative medicine as religion, the two examples opened up an interesting discussion on “religion” and “science” as reified and constructed concepts. Actually, instead of trying to put the two examples in one or the other category, “religion” and “science” might be viewed as strategies in which to “sell” the treatments in question in the marketplace. In a different context, I have argued for the same in modern Satanism, dubbing the strategies “esoterization” and “secularization” (we might call them “religionification” and “scientification” instead).  In this sense, neither are wholly scientific or wholly religious, but certainly more or less religious. This in turn can be seen in the implicit hierarchies of natural vs. artificial, old vs. new, holistic vs. Cartesian (or material); religion today (as all religion, actually) relates to the human, temporal and natural as a more meaningful or more powerful way of engagement with the world. A specific modern turn would be the equation of world, body and self, making CAM one possible aspect of contemporary, detraditionalized “spirituality” which is only a new way of expressing and doing religion. Of course, it can also be another offer in a wide variety of wellness or prosperity products completely devoid of explicit ideology. 

Here, we could contrast the two practitioners with the rumpologist (or Asstrologer) Ulf Buck. Completely blind, he uses butts as palmists use hands to read the character and predict the future of individuals. Another rumpologist, Jaqueline Stallone, claims that 

rump reading is an art that was practiced in ancient Babylon, India, Greece, and Rome. She claims that the ancient Greeks thought the butt was the key to health and fidelity. 

While I am certain that we can find some “scientification” here as well, rump divination paradoxically moves us closer to traditional “religion” while simultaneously shining a light (or pointing a finger) at a most earthly body part. I can’t wait for this to hit Norway. 

[for Scandinavian readers, Asbjørn Dyrendal has written 5 good essays on this topic – see and the links at the bottom, and]

The “possible sexual component” of Water Angels

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On vacation, I finally found the time to finish the biography Master of the Mysteries: The Life of Manly Palmer Hall by Louis Saragun (Process 2008). I knew little about this “huge avocado of a man” (3) and I mainly chose the book because of the pictures, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a highly entertaining biography of a person who in himself is an important piece of the puzzle that is American occulture.

Manly Palmer Hall is not so much an original thinker; he is rather a mediator (or “teacher” in his own words) of “practical wisdom”, mainly through lectures and core texts such as The Secret Teachings of All Ages (1928), Lectures on Ancient Philosophy (1929) and Meditation Symbols in Eastern and Western Mysticism (1988).  His impressive career spans 70 years – he arrives in Los Angeles in 1919 and dies in 1990 – producing some 50 books, 8000 stenographed lectures and several journals while networking with celebrities in both entertainment, business, politics and esotericism. Ideologically, he follows the development within the cultic milieu from New Thought and Theosophy over violet rays and other funny tech-stuff to self-help, with a good dash of patriotic apocalyptics thrown in (112). This makes brilliant reading in itself, but there is more…

In a sense, Hall’s total persona (central works, mythic biography, connections, activities) is a microcosmos mirroring the cultic milieu in the same way his introductory volumes seem to work as gateways into the network by mimicking the associative mind map structure of the milieu itself. I have been working a lot with the concept of the cultic milieu now, and I find the de-territorialized, virtual space of practitioners, media and audiences helpful when dealing with global flows of occulture; at the same time, local manifestations of this virtual milieu, such as the Californian esoteric milieu around Hall and his Philosophical Research Society (now an accredited university) are necessary empirical re-territorializations of the total concept. In essence, we can choose to study one or the other (or both, if we’re overly ambitious), but we have to relate them in order to explain the total process encapsulated in the theory of “milieus”. Thus popular studies such as Saragun’s supply valuable material for theoretical reflection, and Hall could be considered a “critical case” study; he is a well-funded nook in the cultic milieu, supported by the Lloyd family and thus able to produce and network in an entirely different league than our “ordinary seeker”. I developed three embryonic projects along these lines while reading the book.

First off, Hall’s extensive archive of newspaper clippings is a goldmine in understanding the cultic milieu in a genealogical light. We are only introduced to a few examples, but he apparently collected the ads of all competitors as a clever trendspotter (see chapt. 1 and 2, especially pp. 26-34); for example, Pneumandros, the “World’s Ablest Philosophic Critic”, would surely be forgotten if not for the diligence of Hall. Although a teacher and not a Teacher, I have done the same for some years now (my personal favorite is Bettina, the holistic hair stylist), and I think a book is waiting to be written on the connection between confidentials and advertisements and the cultic milieu as mediatized network, tracing the development from newspapers, journals and books over ads in occult shops to meta-sites on the Internet.

Secondly, Hall is more of a conservative esotericist, advocating discipline, patriotism and the “secret destiny of America” during the war; later, he was squarely at odds with the counter-culture as he was pro-Vietnam (196-97), anti-drugs (191-92) and anti-modern art (187-88) (perhaps an esoteric Elvis is an apt metaphor?). As with a lot of pre-WW2 esotericism, he also entertained occult racism and dreamed of eugenics and meritocracy (104-5, chap. 4, 167-171). Because of the Summer of Love and the myth of the counter-culture promoted by commentators and participants (with roots in eg. Annie Besant’s political engagement, perhaps?), popular esotericism and New Age discourse has this vague smell of Leftist egalitarian engagement about it. It is easy to forget the connections that can be made between perennialism and political currents: liberalism, patriotism, fascism, conservatism. Or social Darwinism, racism, nationalism, traditionalism and evolutionism, ideologies that span the entire political spectrum. 

In fact, evolutionist occulture is not odd at all; I think it is the norm when we move back in time. Perhaps this is actually found in embryonic form in the Romantic project with its dual focus on the spiritual aristocrat or genius artist (that develops the self) and the folk with a soul and voice, connected to blood and soil. Indeed, the combination of evolutionism and individualism can explain much about modern-day esotericism. Crowley, for example, was definitely counter-cultural and quite transgressive, but he also practiced patriotism and a moral re-orientation that needs some explanation and understanding not to dismiss as elitist fascism. Early Theosophy’s talk of root races, The Great White Brotherhood and the complicated hierarchy of beings also seems somewhat … problematic today, and is at odds with their humanistic goals of unifying mankind unless you accept the ideological framework. Paganism in the various pagan revivals is intimately connected to nationalist movements, as were the völkisch currents in continental Europe before and between the wars. Much modern New Age is rather crass, condemning Jews and Muslims as “undeveloped souls” slated for karmic destruction (see eg. Damian Thompsons The End of Time). Naturally, esotericism has something inherently elitist and essentialist about it; self-development, secrecy, initiation… but it often flows into vast catastrophic scenarios for the undeveloped masses.

Sometimes Hall is more of a classical liberal; self-help means doing it yourself, and nobody has the right to interfere. Other times, he is more of a conservative patriot (I was frequently reminded of the National Treasure movies, especially when reading about the search for Bruton vault and the lost Shakespeare-manuscripts made by Francis Bacon) or a social Darwinist racist (as when he implies Canadians to be a proto-sixth root race. A good test is to see whether the evolution raises one race/ethnicity above the rest or actively denigrates others). So while it is easy to conflate and confuse political positions and esoteric goals, at least we shouldn’t accept the combination “benign Leftist New Age discourse” as the only expression of esoteric politics – aristocratic perennialist conservatism, egalitarian bourgeois DIY-occulture or neo-fascist nationalism are other possibilities. (Important inspiration can be found in Mark Sedgwick’s Against the Modern World on Traditionalism, N. Goodrick Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism and Black Sun, Michael Barkun’s A Culture of Conspiracy and Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism).

Thirdly, Hall himself and the various odd characters around him are well represented in the book and give a good impression of the changing styles from the occult 1920s over the patriotic 1940s to the New Age of the 1980s. Look at the picture above; the “Byronic pose” and dramatic cape are indicative of the flamboyance in his life (and yes, it is a William Mortensen and they were friends in the 1930s). He dated Hollywood, doing film treatments and hypnotizing Bela Lugosi. He mingled with the Roerich’s in New York. His career started in a phrenology shop in Santa Monica. While reading the book, you just have to share anecdotes and insanities. And this is where the water angels come in.

You see, Hall had an addiction to enemas late in life. He was also into donuts and malted milk balls, vitamins and cathode ray therapy, healing and blood crystals, but apparently enemas – up to two a day – was the thing. While being a personal health project with his wife Marie early on, they assumed center stage from the late 1980s, supplied by Dr. Fritz and his son (if you need a personal colon cleaner, “Dr. Fritz” sounds safe). This is quite relevant for the “wellness revolution” of today (chronicled by Paul Heelas and Christopher Partridge, for example); as with other elements, Hall was in the avant-garde of spiritual enemas (or perhaps practical spirituality, chap. 5). Which by the way aided in killing him in the end by softening the mucous membranes of the rectal tissue and upsetting the electrolyte balance, as his personal physician, Sterling Pollock, comments (165, 254, 271).

But I digress. What I find very interesting is the double legitimation of so-called “Water Angels”, a colon cleanser marketed by the International Bionics Society (later promoted by Biogenics under Dr. Fritz), and invented by Edmund B. Szekely (163-166). The Water Angel is not just legitimized through pseudo-scientific rational discourse of nutrition, detoxification and other health issues – Szekely claimed that Jesus himself stood behind the spiritual enemas. Using a private translation from Aramaic of a secret Vatican manuscript called The Essene Gospel of Peace (published in 1936), he argued the antiquity and traditional authority of the Son of God vouched for his apparatus:

In that gospel, Jesus urges a group of followers to cleanse their “hinder parts” with an “angel of water”: a colonics device made from a hollowed-out gourd filled with “river water warmed by the sun.” “No man may come before the face of God,” Szekely quotes Jesus as saying, “whom the angel of water does not let pass.” (163)

Thus, the rational authority of “science” is supported by the traditional authority of age and provenance. And Hall, who ironically claimed that modern medicine “was in it for the money”, dutifully submitted to “internal douches” to treat his various ailments. Of course, this type of alternative medicine is part of a wider current; another of Hall’s healers, William Gray, claimed that female indigestion, eczema, bronchial trouble, shortness of breath and heart strain resulted from a “dormant clitoris nerve” (159). Luckily, Gray could channel an electric current through his hand, always under the blouse or skirt: “Close friends of the Halls said that upon contact, the muscles between Gray’s left shoulder and elbow would expand and contract like an electric pump”. Well, yes. But then again, Hall’s wife’s sister Agnes states that the water angel had a “possible sexual component”.

Dr. Fritz, by the way, who was definitely in it for the money, ran a pre-natal dolphin retreat in Hawaii before being Hall’s personal colon cleaner. “The Hawaiian Prenatal Cultural Center”, aka “The Stairway to the Stars”, nearly killed off 1 of 10 white middle-class women submitting to various spiritual health exercises (245-48); reacting to the drama of emergency rescue by helicopter, he exclaimed:

I blew it in Atlantis, but I’m not going to blow it here!

What a beauty.

Written by Jesper

April 9, 2010 at 14:37

Contact: Random ramblings

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Last Thursday, I spent an afternoon with around 20 students watching the movie Contact (R. Zemeckis, 1997). I have tried to supplement my course teaching in popular religion(s) with informal lecture-and-a-screening of various movies seen in the light of Religious Studies: The Wicker Man, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (pure methodology), What the Bl**p Do We Know and latest Meggido: Omega Code 2 (as Yuletide fun). One danger I have tried to avoid is reducing the movie to pure exemplar, as a lot of “Religion and ‘X'”-studies do. As an object of analysis, we need to respect the structural and aesthetic aspects of the material studied and not just dissect the content. Nevertheless, most of my lectures have been inspired by important relations between popular culture and religious creativity with the movie as interface.

In the case of Contact, the implications of the SETI programme (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) are told through the eyes of one woman, Ellie Arroway. But what is scientific fiction for about an hour turns into science fiction when aliens finally make contact through a radio signal (with prime numbers, an audiovisual of Hitler and blueprints for a transportation machine). Ellie, against all odds, gets the ticket for the wormhole device and travels around the galaxy for 18 hours before returning home. Here, she is considered a nut, as the device seemed to fail from an Earth-bound perspective. Thus she travels from the position of scientific skeptic to revelatory gnostic.

As Slavoj Zizek remarks in his critique of Avatar ( (in Danish)), mainstream Hollywood has a predilection for translating thematic conflicts into embodied ones, often in the form of romantic love between a man and a woman (little homo- or xenosexuality as of 2010). This is an effective strategy, but also a dumbing-down of the thematic subtext. When watching the movie, it is obvious that the philosophical conflict between religion and science is personified in open-shirt Palmer Joss (M. McConaughey) vs. buttoned-up Ellie Arroway (J. Foster).

They meet in the Puerto-Rican jungle and have sex, but things go sour due to circumstances (Ellie’s boss David Drumlin (T. Skerritt) is pulling the plug on the project) and Ellie’s lack of emotional maturity (a rather masculine trait, see below). 4 years later, they luckily meet again, get involved (more emotionally than physically this time), grow apart (ideological differences and emotions get in the way) but end up together as she learns what it’s like to be spiritual (that is, not believed by skeptics… but having powerful experiences anyway). A recurrent thematic symbol is the plastic compass that changes hands a few times, as they challenge each others “moral orientation” throughout the film. This is analogy on the run, and surely an evocative way of describing the intellectual and emotional battles between “religion” and “science” in western history; whether it reflects reality is another matter.

Anyway, he has an MA in Divinity “but dropped out of seminary to do some secular humanitarian work”, which is nice. He is a cool Christian then, open, talkative and later special advisor to the President. He is a writer and social critic rather than preacher, a perfect contrast to the evil Christian fundamentalist with long blonde hair (J. Busey) who ends up blowing the first Machine to bits. On the other hand, Ellie’s tough personal history (mother lost at childbirth, father when she was nine) has made her ambitious, driven and rather focused on the sky (she misses mom and dad), as well as a firm advocate of atheism, Occam’s Razor and skepticism. Hence she is lacking in both emotional and “spiritual” connection to other people; she is curious and knowledgeable, but obviously has problems with public speaking and intimate relations, although she ends up talking to children on “their level” at the end, when she is spiritually (and romantically) “awakened” (luckily, the producers pass on the idea of introducing a baby as coincidentia oppositorum).

As such, the lonely atheist and the worldly “faitheist” meet, first in the flesh (which fails), later in a shared belief in numinous experiences (which is apparently a much more solid ground for romantic involvement). Palmer Joss had his experience early in life (or at least before the movie begins), as he tells us in bed. He interprets it through a de-mythologized Christian frame and acts it out through social engagement. Ellie’s experience is shown in the movie as a visit to the stars, where she reconnects to her childish yearnings and direct understanding of beauty as well as her father (see below). She interprets it through a scientific frame, but it is unsuccessful in coping with the power of emotions, as the scientific and political reactions show (science is a collective and easily politicized endeavour). She ends up acting the experience through an intimate relationship (that is only suggested) and a professional embracing of teaching. Curiosity is filled with spiritual meaning.

Before discussing this thematic resolution in more detail, let’s extend the “character cloud” surrounding the happy couple of Palmer and Ellie. Palmer represents Good Religion or Faith, exhibits good masculine traits, and has a moral trajectory from belief to reason during the long movie. In contrast, Ellie represents Good Science or Reason, is androgynous (but female when the right male is around), and has a moral trajectory from reason to belief. “Behind” Palmer are three male figures with ambiguous relations to the androgynous femininity of Ellie. First off her absent dad, in some sense responsible for her curiosity but also her lack of faith and her amputated femininity. Nevertheless he is all good. A bit closer to the action we find the polar opposites of David Drumlin, a bad (but good) father figure and politicized scientist (bad bad!!), and S. R. Hadden, a good (but bad) father figure and trickster figure. He too is a politicized scientist (a rich engineer involved in subversive activities), but he has cancer, which is a get-out-of-jail-free card in Hollywood; his money and influence, while bad, is good when used to facilitate Ellie’s quest and to combat the establishment – we don’t believe the hoax angle played in the end. Similarly Drumlin’s negativity is absolved through his sacrifice and his reflexivity; although his pragmatism regarding faith and scientific worth is destructive (that is what the world is like), he silently acknowledges Ellie’s idealism before meeting his doom: The world is what we make of it. In essence, the two represent bad science that can be transformed.

“Behind” Ellie are three androgynous figures that extend on Ellie’s complicated thematic role. First of all is the Alien-as-daddy, as the alien Vegan uses this image to ease first contact. Mirroring the father in the masculine triad, the alien’s superior moral, spiritual and scientific knowledge is the enzyme initiating Ellie’s resolution, and it is thus all good. Closer to Ellie are another polarity (although not as pronounced as Drumlin – Hadden), namely Ellie-as-child, which represents hope and pure curiosity, versus the blind SETI researcher Kent Clark (COME ON!), who has sublime hearing but a bad case of despair. They represent good science that is still embryonic.

Regarding the thematic resolution, what does religion and science aka Palmer and Ellie agree upon? Ellie travels 26 light-years to be told that intimacy and personal relations are all that makes life bearable; it is the meaning of life. This “spiritual” message stands in glaring contrast to the engineering feats necessary to build a wormhole production device, but is nicely underscored by the beauty of the universe. The message seems to be that micro-and macrouniverse is connected in the eyes and heart of the beholder, technology notwithstanding. Luckily science is reserved a small place in the meaning of it all, as mathematics, physics and chemistry are shown to be the galactic lingua franca alongside emotions. You just have to use it truthfully, which takes us to Palmer Joss.

Several times in the movie he equates religion and science as a “search for truth” (beginning and end, good script writing there. This phrase is thematically tied up with the sentence “if we’re alone, it is an awful waste of space” in the beginning, middle and end and the aforementioned compass). The normative criterion for religion and science then becomes a philosophical goal that balances neatly between uppercase Truth and lowercase truth (both are something universal and spiritual, but intellectual Truth is tempered by emotional and intimate truth), and both science and religion are apocalyptic in the sense that they are paths to revelation of this truth. Only then, in the embodiment of truth, can religion and science truly meet.

One could argue that this is an amputation of both religion and science. Religion becomes something cognitive (although also embodied and felt), a watered-down Protestant “faith”-based morality – private truth, not practice or politics (remember Talal Asad’s critique of Clifford Geertz’ definition of religion). In fact, the only acceptable religion in the movie is this privatized “spirituality”; religious practice in the movie is either silly (as Ellie’s drive to Cape Canaveral illustrates – the road is filled with idiots chanting and singing), dangerous (the fundamentalist becomes a terrorist) or ideological (which is suspect; Drumlin’s fake religion is a case in point). Palmer Joss, our guide to better living and the representative of acceptable religion, has precisely dropped out of seminary (he “couldn’t handle the celibacy thing”) to do “secular humanitarian work”; he writes books, gives interviews and helps the President, that is he is doing politics without being political. He is humanitarian (something moral and spiritual), not religious.

Ellie (and by extension science) has meaning, truth, longing and seeking in common with this religiosity, but she has too much reason and ambition to see this truth. Luckily she meets an alien that can show her the right balance – space-dad resembles dead earth-dad and alive earth-lover that is also dad (“father” Joss; he even says the same thing as dead dad did). Science is amputated from both its methodological framework and the context of justification (the imagined community of scientists writing articles etc.) to be nothing but philosophy aided by giant machines.

In this way, the initial contrast between religion and science understood as narrow-minded fanaticism (bad and thoroughly male as in the blonde fundamentalist or the bad father figure of David Drumlin) vs. empirical curiosity (good and androgynous as Ellie is masculine but also female (girlish) as contrast to male religion) is mediated by a very cool Christian. Both religion and science becomes bad when seen from the middle position of “faith” or spiritual belief – religion is dogma and science is politics. Faith is experiential and mediates male and female (while cementing the gender roles; Ellie is weak in the end and is protected by Palmer, a fine contrast to her very masculine attitude to one-night stands in the beginning of the film) as well as experience and belief. In the end, Ellie is alone in the desert contemplating truth, in a sense having assimilated Palmer to reach completion. A harmonic conclusion to science and religion indeed!

Perhaps there is enough for an article anyway?! I’ll stop here and return later with more reflections on the ultimate father figure of Carl Sagan, the SETI project as spiritual revelation, the movie as an appropriation of New Age mythology and the various resolutions of science and religion found outside movie narratives.

Written by Jesper

March 6, 2010 at 23:29